- Historic Sites
The people who stand ready to trade their lives for ours are part of a tradition that goes back 400 years
November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
There certainly was enough work, and enough danger, to keep the volunteers on the straight and narrow. Even as America’s emerging cities added to their fire codes by regulating building materials and restricting the storage of explosive material, fire was a constant worry. “By one thoughtless act,” wrote a Philadelphia citizen, “a whole neighbourhood, town or city, may be shortly reduced to ashes, great numbers of lives lost, and numbers ruined … in the dreadful conflagration.”
From the beginning, fire service was considered man’s work, and, in most cities, white man’s work at that. In the decades leading to the Revolution and for a time afterward, America’s volunteer fire companies included people of the caliber of Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, and George Washington. Franklin, who surely was not the most objective source on the subject, described volunteer firefighters as “brave Men, Men of Spirit and Humanity, good Citizens, or Neighbours, capable and worthy of civil Society and the Enjoyment of a happy Government.” They certainly were worthy of admiration, for they were expected to respond instantly to an alarm, and more often than not, that meant leaving their homes at night, when more fires occur, and returning hours later—wet, cold, and exhausted, with no reward other than the admiration of fellow citizens and the camaraderie of their fellow firefighters.
One of firefighting’s hardiest traditions, the firefighting family, can be traced to the early volunteer days. The Stoutenburghs of New York served on the Common Council, won appointment to early patronage jobs like oversight of the city’s night patrol, and were prominent members of the city’s volunteer fire companies. One of them, Jacobus Stoutenburgh, was given the title of “chief engineer” of New York’s volunteer fire department in 1760. He was among America’s first fire chiefs.
He also was part of another fire department tradition—the convergence of firefighting and military service. Firefighters to this day tend to be veterans in numbers disproportionate to the general population (Chief Reginald Julius, for example, served in the Navy in World War II), and during the Civil War, firefighters formed their own regiments in the Union Army. Stoutenburgh was a patriot, and when George Washington evacuated New York in the fall of 1776, leaving the city to the British, he and many other volunteers under his command joined the American army. Legend has it that Stoutenburgh formed a battalion of firefighters and was commissioned an officer, and Stoutenburgh’s name does appear on muster rolls from the war.
The volunteer fire departments and fire clubs of the 1760s and 1770s played an active role in patriot agitation, as Benjamin L. Carp noted in an October 2001 article in The William and Mary Quarterly . Carp found that of the 36 men who turned out at the inaugural meeting of the Albany Sons of Liberty in 1776, 20 were volunteer firefighters or firemasters, who inspected buildings for fire hazards. “These social bonds,” Carp wrote, “… provided the structure for the formation of organized resistance to the Stamp Act.” At least seven fire companies in Philadelphia, Carp noted, instituted their own nonimportation agreements during patriotic boycotts of British goods in the 1760s and 1770s. (Among other measures, the firefighters swore off all but domestic beer.)
To be given the nozzle for the first time is to know that you’ve arrived as a young firefighter.
The end of the Revolution brought a reorganization of the young Republic’s volunteer fire departments. The model created under British rule remained largely intact, but over the first five decades of American independence, the profile of the volunteer firefighter changed. Businessmen and other civic leaders gave way to blacksmiths and cobblers and other skilled laborers in the 1830s. Soon the indefatigable diarist George Templeton Strong was complaining that “a large part of the firemen do nothing but bustle around in their caps, swear at everybody and try to look tremendous.” Strong found that every aspect of firefighting in the post-Jacksonian age was “as badly conducted as possible.” He did not mention, however, that he chose not to follow the fine example of his aristocratic uncle Benjamin Strong, a financier who had served as a volunteer years before.
For better and worse, this was the golden age of urban America’s volunteer fire departments, roughly from 1835 to the Civil War. In their less savory moments, these firemen would look not unlike today’s English soccer hooligan. Every company wanted the honor of what they called “manning the pipe”—in modern terms, working the nozzle. Racing to a fire only to be relegated to a supporting role, like relaying water to the main pumper, was nothing short of humiliating. (That point of pride remains intact. The nozzleman remains the envy of every self-respecting engine company, and to be given the nozzle for the first time is to know you’ve arrived as a young firefighter.) Brawls occasionally decided which company would work the pipes and which would provide unglamorous support.
Political clubhouses and gangs looked to firehouses as fertile recruiting ground in the 1840s for any number of reasons, not the least of them being that the neighborhood firehouse served as a social center. Not only the volunteers congregated there. So did young boys and teenagers who looked up to the firefighters as neighborhood celebrities.